What we know about gender and performance reviews

Update December 22, 2016: I have updated these findings with new research, and added insights about ethnicity, race, and performance reviews.

The evidence is mounting that our existing feedback systems have inherent biases that penalize women. I have a personal commitment to help improve this, and in this post, I make specific recommendations on how to do so. But first, what do we know about gender and performance reviews?

  • Women receive more criticisms of their personalities in performance reviews: A linguist did study on performance reviews. Men and women provided positive performance reviews. She found that in 83 performance reviews, men received personality feedback in only 2 cases. In 94 critical reviews, women received personality criticisms 71 times. [1] Words like “abrasive” and “strident” were present in these performance reviews.
  • Women receive less helpful feedback than men. In a study of 200 performance reviews in a tech company, researchers found that women were more likely to receive vague praise than were men (57% and 43%, respectively), which included unhelpful comments like “You had a great year.” Men were more likely to receive developmental feedback, and linked specifically to business outcomes. When women did receive developmental feedback, it tended to relate to their personalities rather than to their performance [2]
  • The “glass ceiling” is the result of many tiny obstacles. Researchers at Harvard Business School found that there is no specific point where women face a “ceiling,” but many small instances of discrimination lead to their careers stalling over time. [4] This may be why after only 2 years with a company, women’s aspirations for career advancement fall an astounding 60%, while men’s aspirations fall negligibly.
  • Ostensibly “meritocratic” reward systems favor men over women, and whites over minorities. Researchers experimentally tested whether managers would reward people differently when explicitly creating a system of “merit.” Over 3 experiments and 445 participants, they found men were rewarded with more money than women in this supposed “meritocratic” system. They also found that ethnic minorities and non-American born people were given lower raises, even when using the same evaluative criteria. [5] In another experiment, researchers switched male and female professors of an online course in the middle of the term. Students consistently rated the male professor higher, even though they actually had a female professor without knowing it. [6]
  • Women are penalized for asking for raises: Researchers found that people judge women more harshly when they ask for a raise; women don’t ask for raises because they realistically assess the social cost of asking. [7]
  • Men are rated more highly for helping colleagues, and women are rated more negatively for not helping. In a series of experiments, researchers asked participants to rate the performance of men and women who either agreed to stay late to help colleagues, or refused to stay late and help. Men who offered to stay were rated 14% more positively (women’s rating remained the same). Women who refused to stay were rated 12% more negatively (men were not rated more negatively). [8]
  • Women pay a penalty for motherhood, while men reap a bonus for fatherhood: Researchers have found women who become mothers pay a minimum penalty of 4% decline in income. [9] The penalty is larger for more educated women. [5] By contrast, fathers reap a bonus [11]. This is not due to a lack of commitment by women, by biased perceptions of their commitment. [10]  In other words, the cost of being a parent depends on your gender, not your performance.
  • Men are penalized when they ask for family accommodation. In a study of a management consultancy, one researcher found that men who ask for flexibility to care for their families are punished in performance reviews. [12] Men who did not openly ask but made private, covert arrangements got better performance reviews.
  • Keeping track improves fairness. Just keeping track of how people get rewarded, broken down by race and gender, was enough to reduce inequality over 5 years in a single company. So know your data! How are people doing relative to each other? [5]
  • Just pointing out bias actually increases its incidence! Other research has found that pointing out bias actually increases its negative consequences. [13] This effect disappeared when researchers noted that discrimination is not desirable.
  • Training managers on potential work/life conflicts decreases employee stress. Researchers trained a single company’s managers on how to deal with work/life conflict. They found reduced employee stress, and no increase in employee hours. [14]


Opportunities for Improvement

  1. Examine the words you use in your performance feedback. Is it related to personality or performance? Are the words very gendered, such as “bossy”? Consider what words you might have used to describe the opposite gender.
  2. Is your feedback helpful and specific? Did you provide vague praise like “Great job this year” or did you say, “Your work on the launch plan led to greater sales”? Make sure you link the feedback to specific business goals.
  3. Did you reward fairly? Is there a systematic difference between the genders? Could this be unconscious bias?
  4. Is this a “tiny obstacle”? How many barriers has your direct report experienced in her career? Is this performance review a chance to create a “tiny ladder” through the glass ceiling?
  5. Do you expect women to be more altruistic? Reward men and women equally for the same behaviors. Consider if you expect women to be more giving of their time than men.
  6. Do you expect men to be less family-oriented? Recognize that men have families too. Are you penalizing a man for being a caring father?
  7. Is your direct report asking for something…and are you evaluating that ask fairly? Consider what kinds of requests your direct report has made. Are you judging those requests fairly, or are you penalizing the person for speaking up?
  8. Unconscious bias is wrong. Make sure you point out that bias is wrong, not just that it exists. Norms are powerful, especially for senior leaders.
  9. Keeping track improves fairness. Just keeping track of how people get rewarded, broken down by race and gender, was enough to reduce inequality over 5 years in a single company. So know your data! How are people doing relative to each other? [5]





[1]       K. Snyder, “The Abrasiveness Trap: High Achieving Men and Women Are Described Differently in Reviews,” Fortune, New York, Aug-2014.

[2]       S. Correll and C. Simard, “Vague Feedback Is Holding Women Back,” Harvard Business Review, no. April, 2016.

[3]       A. Grant, “Rocking the Boat but Keeping It Steady: The Role of Emotion Regulation in Employee Voice,” Academy of Management Journal, vol. 56, no. 6, 2013.

[4]       A. Eagly and L. Carli, “Women and the labyrinth of leadership,” Harvard Business Review, no. September, pp. 62–71, 2007.

[5]       E. J. Castilla and S. Benard, “The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations,” Administrative Science Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, pp. 543–576, Dec. 2010.

[6]       L. MacNell, A. Driscoll, and A. N. Hunt, “What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching,” Innovative Higher Education, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 291–303, 2015.

[7]       H. R. Bowles, L. Babcock, and L. Lai, “Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, vol. 103, no. 1, pp. 84–103, May 2007.

[8]       M. Heilman and J. Chen, “Same Behavior, Different Consequences: Reactions to Men’s and Women’s Altruistic Citizenship Behavior,” Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 90, no. 3, pp. 431–441, 2005.

[9]       T. Street, A. Arbor, and P. O. Box, “Has the Price of Motherhood Declined Over Time ? A Cross-Cohort Comparison of the Motherhood Wage Penalty,” Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 65, no. August, pp. 597–607, 2003.

[10]     J. a. Kmec, “Are motherhood penalties and fatherhood bonuses warranted? Comparing pro-work behaviors and conditions of mothers, fathers, and non-parents,” Social Science Research, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 444–459, Mar. 2011.

[11]     G. Hundley, “Male/Female Earnings Differences in Self-Employment: The Effects of Marriage, Children, and The Household Division of Labor,” Labor Relations Review, pp. 95–114, 2000.

[12]     E. Reid, “Embracing, Passing, Revealing, and the Ideal Worker Image: How People Navigate Expected and Experienced Professional Identities,” Organization Science, vol. 0, no. 0, p. null.

[13]     M. Duguid and M. Thomas-Hunt, “Condoning Stereotyping?: How Awareness of Stereotyping Prevalence Impacts Expression of Stereotypes,” Journal of Applied Psychology, no. October, 2014.

[14]     E. L. Kelly, P. Moen, J. M. Oakes, W. Fan, C. Okechukwu, K. D. Davis, L. B. Hammer, E. E. Kossek, R. B. King, G. C. Hanson, F. Mierzwa, and L. M. Casper, “Changing Work and Work-Family Conflict: Evidence from the Work, Family, and Health Network,” American Sociological Review, vol. 79, no. 3, pp. 485–516, May 2014.